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College Football’s Call to the Millions

College football season is upon us and many will be sitting in the stands or watching the televised play-by-play — a great diversion from the ongoing political battles in this election year. Much has changed in college football since the early days of “mob ball” in the early 19th century. It was not until the 1860s that rules were put into effect to standardize the game, but football remained a college sport. By the turn of the century, college football had expanded from the early Ivy League teams to include schools from coast to coast. Football dynasties came into being and players’ names became as popular as Baseball’s greats.

The Frank Leslie’s Weekly article below provides a look at college football in 1920. Following the First World War, athletes that had been in uniform rejoined their college football teams and the American public needed a diversion from the stress of war, home front shortages, and or an opportunity to enjoy a little leisure time.

The 1920 college football season saw an astounding number of fans sitting in the stands, cheering their team on to victory! College football reached new heights in popularity, partly due to the rise in the number of men and women attending college and partly due to the increase in the number of non-college local fans.

This Frank Leslie’s article illuminates the growing place of football in American popular culture. Faculty, students, and scholars interested in critically considering the role sports play in American culture, will find this article and Frank Leslie’s Weekly, a treasure trove of primary source information.

October 21, 1921 - An airplane snapshot of the Yale “Bowl” taken during a minor football game.

October 21, 1921 – An airplane snapshot of the Yale “Bowl” taken during a minor football game.

Football’s Call to the Millions

“WHEN more than 3,000,000 persons turn out in a single day to see the game of football played in various places throughout the United States, as they did recently, no argument need be advanced that this sport has attained a popularity which places it in public favor second only to the nation’s pastime, baseball. And if the governing forces of the latter fail to purge it of the crooks who have brought it into disrepute—and I mean the contract-jumpers and contract-breakers, slippery players and tricky managers who succeed in “beating the rules,” as well as the moral defectives who threw games for a price— football will become the premier favorite of America’s sport lovers.

In fact, if the gridiron game could be played in summer, baseball would have opposition which would give it a fearful jolt, and the millions of dollars which now go toward the support of the splendid college game would pass through the ticket windows at the ball parks.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.
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And the reasons why football is so universally popular are:

First, because it is played by those who love it for its spirit of genuine combat, for its atmosphere of excitement, and who follow its fortunes for honor and glory, not for financial reward or because they intend to make it their life work; second, because it is a game of skill, dash, spirit, played by youths with imagination, a sense of ethics and of moral responsibility which place them on a plane above the average professional athlete; and third, because the game is clean, because tricky playing is properly penalized, because practically every college man who ever trod a gridiron would sooner have lost his right arm than thrown a game.

The rapid development of the small college eleven into a prominent factor in the sport has made intercollegiate football what it is today—at least from the box-office standpoint. Modern rules, featured by the forward pass and the consequent speeding up of the play generally, have done the rest. In fact, because of these things, the game, which formerly was looked upon as a sort of cross between a riot and a Greco-Roman free-for-all, now is classed as a pastime worthy of the patronage of the best type of sport lovers.

An attendance of 3,000,000 persons at a single day’s football matches, at a low average of $2 a head, makes a total of $6,000,000. Exact figures undoubtedly would show much larger receipts. The huge attendances of the 1920 season also indicate, not only a widening diffusion of college education among the American people, because it is the college men and women who constitute the larger portion of the crowds at the football games, but also that the pastime is becoming popular with many whose schooling did not include university training and to whom the battles on the gridiron are comparatively a new thing.

Frank Leslie's Weekly - October 29, 1921

Frank Leslie’s Weekly – October 29, 1921

When the Yale bowl was constructed room was provided for more than 60,000 persons. Up to that time the Harvard stadium at Cambridge was the largest of its kind, with a seating capacity of about 38,000. The Palmer stadium at Princeton can accommodate about 36,000 spectators. On one occasion, some time ago, the Yale management cared for 70,000 persons in the bowl by building temporary wooden stands to accommodate the overflow. It is believed by students of football conditions that in the near future the crowds at most of the big games will be limited only by the size of the stadiums, and that seating capacity will have to be provided for 100,000 or maybe 150,000.

Of course, with so much real money in sight, the gambling fraternity has endeavored to put its black mark on the sport, but to date the sure-thing gentry have been so rudely received by the football players approached that they are discouraged.

Two recent incidents will indicate the effective manner in which certain “sure-thing” men were suppressed. One endeavored to obtain a signal code from a player on a Western team. The boy notified his coach, a famous quarterback not many years ago, and the latter enticed the gambler into a room in the training quarters, where he administered a necessary lesson with the assistance of a baseball bat. In another instance a gambler attempted to bribe the fullback on a small college eleven to toss away a game. The player invited the man to his room to settle the details, and when he got him there, locked the door and beat the offender until he yelled for mercy. Then the boy summoned the coach, who ran the gambler out of town.”

Source: Frank Leslie’s Weekly, December 4, 1920

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